EdX will ‘blend’ with community colleges

Two Boston community colleges will partner with edX, Harvard and MIT’s online learning venture, on a “blended” computer science class. Three MIT professors will teach the online course; community college professors will provide classroom instruction and support.

Udacious

Sebastian Thrun, who drew 160,000 students to his free, online artificial intelligence course, is quitting Stanford University to create a free online university called Udacity.

There were more students in his course from Lithuania alone than there are students at Stanford altogether, said Thrun in a talk at the DLD Conference in Munich, reports Felix Salmon of Reuters. Of 248 students who earned a perfect score, all were online students.

Thrun was eloquent on the subject of how he realized that he had been running “weeder” classes, designed to be tough and make students fail and make himself, the professor, look good. Going forwards, he said, he wanted to learn from Khan Academy and build courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed — by revisiting classes and tests as many times as necessary until they really master the material.

And I loved as well his story of the physical class at Stanford, which dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.

“I can’t teach at Stanford again,” Thrun said. He hopes to enroll 500,000 students for his first Udacity course on how to build a search engine.

It’s too bad Thrun has to leave Stanford to create Udacity, Salmon writes.

Stanford refused to issue a certificate to the 20,000 online students who finished Thrun’s course and a second open computer course, notes NPR. Instead, online students received a letter from the professor indicating their class rank.

“We are still having conversations about that,” says James Plummer, dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering. “I think it will actually be a long time — maybe never — when actual Stanford degrees would be given for fully online work by anyone who wishes to register for the courses.”

By contrast, MIT will offer a credential, for a small fee, to online students who succeed in courses offered by MITx.  “A world-famous university with an unimpeachable reputation” is putting “its brand and credibility behind open-education resources,” writes Kevin Carey.

It’s the great unbundling of the university, writes Alan Jacobs in The Atlantic. Universities used to offer a bundled package of knowledge and credentialing.

People attended university in order to learn stuff that they couldn’t learn elsewhere — because the experts weren’t elsewhere — and to be certified by those experts as having actually learned said stuff. The bundle has been a culturally powerful one.

But now: unbundling. Clearly, many universities have come, or are coming, to the conclusion that their primary product is the credentialing, and that they can give knowledge away either as a public service or as brand consolidation (choose your interpretation according to your level of cynicism).

Can universities continue to control credentialing?

I wrote about digital badges, an attempt to challenge universities’ credentialing monopoly, on the U.S. News site.

Open learning online

Not every American can go to college, but what if college comes to them? (Note: Sentence recast to please Stephen Downes.) The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at the potential for “open” classes offered  online.  The Obama administration has proposed a $500-million online-education plan as part of its community-college aid.

The government would pay to develop these “open” classes, taking up the mantle of a movement that has unlocked lecture halls at universities nationwide in recent years — a great course giveaway popularized by the OpenCourseWare project’s free publication of 1,900 courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Millions worldwide have used these online materials. But the publication cost — at MIT, about $10,000 a course — has impeded progress at the community-college level, says Stephen E. Carson, external-relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare.

The Chronicle interviews Mike Smith, back in the Education Department as an advisor, who wants to create “a 21st-century library” of Web-based open courses for high-school and college students.

The courses created would reach students through multiple devices, such as computers, handheld devices, and e-book readers like Kindles. They would be modular, and therefore easily updated. Both nonprofit and for-profit entities could compete for the money to build them.

Federal aid would ensure the courses are available to anyone,  Smith said.

Here’s one possibility Mr. Smith describes: Macomb Community College, in Michigan, takes an open statistics course and puts it into its catalog. The students don’t meet face to face, but there’s a webinar every week or an open discussion online among the professor and students. Macomb gets the course free, adds value to it in the form of interaction with its professor, and charges for it.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative is a model.  While students can use the online courses for independent study, “researchers have found the material can be even more powerful when combined with live instruction.”

Carnegie’s materials have already changed how Logan Stark’s professor at California Polytechnic State University approaches her widely feared biochemistry-for-nonmajors class. Anya L. Goodman used to work from a prepared lecture, starting with the basics so she didn’t lose anyone. Now she puts the burden on students to learn the basics online. She focuses class time on clearing up misconceptions, applying the materials to real life, and working in small groups.

“They’re more attentive,” she says. Especially when she comes in and tells her students, “Here’s what you guys already don’t know.”

High-quality courseware would make it much easier for people who are working and raising kids to take college courses cheaply and conveniently.  It would make it easier for high school students to try advanced or specialized classes. It would lower costs, something higher education never seems able to do.